Two eras of revolution, and the next

The passing of the bipolar cold war brought a new kind of revolution. But it too is changing as American policy and global politics move on.

Hazem Saghieh
22 April 2015

Many things changed with the end of the cold war. The meaning of revolution was one of them. The class-based revolutions infused with nationalism, and the nationalist revolutions infused with class-related elements, retreated. Democratic revolutions advanced. The transformations in central-eastern Europe, together with the fall of military dictatorships in Latin America and Indonesia and the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, were evidence of this shift.

Language also moved on. Freedom replaced liberation, and peaceful or non-violent change replaced revolutionary violence; human rights supplanted national interest or the class's role, activists succeeded freedom fighters or comrades.Instead of tightened fists symbolising militant action, the new revolutions were named after flowers and colours.

The geopolitical movement was profound. The Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China had once been the sponsors and reference-points of revolutionary action. The United States now took on this role, corresponding with the rise of democratic agendas. The new rebels across the world now lost no opportunity to declare that they sought to emulate the west's political fabric. Their existing leaders enjoyed courting Washington, while those still languishing in the prisons run by remaining dictatorships welcomed praise and endorsement from US diplomats and politicians. More importantly, opposition figures struggling for change against repressive authoritarian regimes were ready to invite US intervention, even if this ignored the principle of national sovereignty long championed by anti-imperialists.

Just as the (now past) Soviet era had undergone various phases, moving from a more “right-wing” to a “left-wing” one for example, so did the American era. The interventions under Bill Clinton reflected the change, though these were limited (as in the Balkans) and in general reflected more a taking of the world’s pulse after the cold-war's bipolarity.

This period was followed by the radical and heavy-handed phase under George W. Bush, with the two major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In turn came a non-interventionist phase under Barack Obama, with limited air campaigns (such as in Libya) and drone-strikes, the main feature of this president's approach.

An old-new model

The parallels continued. Just as some Soviet-era revolutionaries criticised the Kremlin and accused it of betraying their revolutions (as happened in 1930s Spain, 1940s Greece, and 1970s Iraq), the quasi-revolutionaries of the American era accuse the White House of selling out and conspiring against their revolutions (Syria is the main current example). Here, there are signs of a major mutual misunderstanding. The revolutionaries tend to exaggerate the principles and ethical calculations that underlie their actions. They also underestimate both the cost a government has to pay for intervention (where accountability to the voters and consideration of their wishes are essential) and these governments' strategic calculations and limits (again just as the Soviet Union was forced to refrain from backing certain revolutions).

For their part the Americans, after Bush’s "internationalist" adventures, became hostage to revolutionary models that are fundamentally based on peaceful and largely cost-free change. The Obama doctrine, as the New York Times's Thomas Friedman calls it, also responds with peaceful engagement meant to ripen conditions for a prospective revolution. By tearing down walls with Cuba and Iran, for example, the United States seeks to expedite change in these countries while guaranteeing in advance that any revolutions would be peaceful.

This effort can be see as the American equivalent of what Marxists used to term “maturing the objective conditions” for revolution, which would reduce the need for and costs of intervention and its accompanying violence. But can peaceful gestures, openness, and de-escalation - joined by reassurances that the US has closed the book on its cold-war behaviour - work in countries like Cuba and Iran to reproduce what happened in central Europe?

Elsewhere, the tension between the United States and prospective new revolutions could last for some time. The mutual distrust among allies, and major misunderstandings between them, ensure this. The US has lost enthusiasm for revolutions that require its substantial input of resources and risk, depriving these of a universal sponsor and reference. Bad luck has become their lot, again exactly like those betrayed and abandoned in the Soviet era.

The critics of today's would-be revolutions that portray them as American-made miss the fact that under Obama they face a shortage, not a surplus, of American support and enthusiasm. A resemblance to the experiences of central-east Europe has become a strict condition for these. Even more, critics miss that they themselves still stuck in the era of Soviet sponsorship of revolutions, applying the outdated criteria of the cold war. The world and its revolutions have moved on, but dogma is eternal.

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